How John Calvin Found Comfort in the Providence of God in the Midst of His Suffering and Own Frailty: With Reference to DSRCT and COVID-19

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with a kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

Addendum COVID-19

The above is a repost, but I think it is highly pertinent right now! I am trying to work through all of the complexities of this currently; it’s hard to do with all the noise out there, and in my own head. A medical doctor I just came in contact with, Andrew Doan, alerted me to an important article on the numbers revolving around COVID19. I’ve been skeptical, up to this point, of the seemingly drastic measures being taken to squelch this virus; but as I’ve read them, the measures seem justified to me at this point. When the statistical projections are made, as the article linked demonstrates, the numbers coming back from the impact of COVID19 are quite alarming. If we take the measures we are taking now, and maybe more stringent ones, it seems, we can bring this virus to a quicker and less deadly termination for the lives of many of the most vulnerable. I cannot, in good faith, argue for the most vulnerable in the womb of the their mothers, and not equally fight for the most vulnerable among us now. Consistency urges that our response to COVID19 promotes a culture that responds with equal ferocity when it comes to other viruses, and the abortion industry; that we fight these things, and create an infrastructure that makes death and destruction, at least to the level that we have a modicum of control, less rather than more.

We are facing hard times as a people. May Christians, as Calvin did, bear witness to the providential control of God’s goodness in the midst of the most tumultuous moments of our lives. May the death of death be on display in our lives, as the resurrection power of God in Christ is borne witness to as we bear witness to the life of Christ as the ground and grammar of all that is lovely. Maranatha

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

On Being a Genuine Lover of Jesus

John Calvin has been referred to by Charles Partee as a ‘confessional theologian,’ meaning that Calvin’s style of theologizing would fit the cadence of Scripture’s narratival flow and offering rather than the systematic’s or analytic’s theological syllogisms and deductions. In his final section of the French version of his Institutes (1541) we can get a sense of how Calvin himself was self-conscious of his disposition as a theological thinker; one for the Church. Even as we are noticing that, what I really want to highlight is the material point Calvin is emphasizing in regard to the reality (or not) of the Christian life.

I will want to agree with Calvin even though it might seem like what he writes militates against certain things I have written over the past many years. When we read along with Calvin you should notice how he emphasizes what being a genuine Christian entails. Some might associate what he is writing with something like John MacArthur’s ‘Lordship salvation,’ but I don’t think those sorts of idiosyncratic trappings (JMac’s) need to attend this discussion. What Calvin is pressing is what I take to be Gospel 101 stuff; that is: that a genuine Christian, one who professes Christ, will seek to live a life of obedience to their Lord, as named. In other words, and Barth agrees with this, the Gospel itself demands obedience to God in Jesus Christ. Not a legalistic obedience, but one birthed as akin to the relationality that we see in a son to his father, or of a daughter to her mother. An obedience that is shaped by a devotio Christi (devotion to Christ), such that one’s passion for Christ, one’s love for Christ compels them unto love and good works (cf. II Cor 5.14). It isn’t that this must be understood as PROVING one’s salvation, but instead we can think of this obedience as the organic flow of the life blood that comes from Immanuel’s veins into ours. When rebellion is present in the professing Christian’s life, as the characteristic, rather than obedience, then it is right to wonder whether or not the professor is an actual possessor of eternal life or not. Surely, it is possible to live in seasons of rebellion towards God, even for the Christian, indeed God is mercifully longsuffering with us all. But the Christian will ultimately be sensitive to the wooing of the Father, and repent; and then repent again, and again.

Calvin writes:

Let those who think that it is only the philosophers who have well and duly discussed moral teaching show me in their books a tradition as good as that which I have just recounted! When they want with all their power to exhort someone to virtue, they adduce nothing else but that we should live as is appropriate for our nature. Scripture leads us to a much better fountain of exhortation when it not only commands us to relate all our life to God who is its author but, after having warned us that we have degenerated from the true origin of our creation, it adds that Christ, reconciling us to God His Father, is given to us as an example of innocence; His image ought to be represented in our life (Rom. 6). Could anything more emphatic or efficacious be said? Particularly, what more could one ask? For if God adopts us as His children on condition that the image of Christ may appear in our life, if we do not devote ourselves to righteousness and holiness we not only abandon our Creator with a very negligent disloyalty, but we also renounce Him as our Savior.[1]

Further:

Here I must address those who, although they have nothing of Christ except the name, nevertheless want to be considered Christians. But how boldly they glory in having His holy name! — since the only person who has any acquaintance with Him is the one who has rightly learned from the word of the gospel. Now St. Paul denies that a person has received right acquaintance and knowledge unless “he has learned to strip off the old person who is depraved with disordered desires, in order to put on Christ” (Eph. 4 [22, 24]). So it is clear that such people falsely claim the knowledge of Christ and greatly insult Him, whatever lovely babble they may have on their lips. For the gospel is not a teaching of the tongue but of life, and it ought not to be grasped only by understanding and in memory like the other disciplines, but it should possess the entire soul and have its seat in the depth of the heart; otherwise it has not been properly accepted. Therefore, either let them cease to boast of being what they are not, to the disgrace of God, or let them show themselves Christ’s disciples.[2]

Some might say this sounds like a latent reference to the so-called practical syllogism, and others as a reference to the latterly developed doctrine of perseverance of the saints; but I don’t think this has to be framed those ways at all.

If someone names the name of Christ, then His life ought to be present at some level in theirs; as theirs. If someone says they love Jesus, but then consciously turn around and rebel against Him[3] as the Word of God, then their love, at best, is suspect, and at worst is absent completely. With much of American evangelicalism clutched in the grasp of moralistic therapeutic deism, or in the image of a different Jesus who looks more like the desires of the professors than the One who came in the womb of Mary, it is likely that many so-called Christians have been duped and deluded into thinking they are something they are not. This is a concerning matter to me, and one that hits close to home. May God have mercy on us all!

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 282-83.

[2] Ibid., 683-84.

[3] When I say ‘rebel’ I mean that the ‘Christian’s’ life becomes characterized by this rebellion. How long this characterization must be present in order to be suspect about someone’s eternal destiny and present relationship with Christ is not up to us to determine; that is Christ’s determination. Nevertheless, we are bound to call each other unto love and good works, and challenge our brothers and sisters to keep pressing into the holiness of Christ, as we see the day approaching. I am not the judge, nor are you, of someone’s eternal destiny; but we are to bear witness to ourselves and others of what the Life of Christ looks like; this is the call we have, to the rebellious and obedient among us.

The ‘Double Salvation’ of the French Calvin: Participation with Christ as the Locus Classicus of Calvinian Soteriology

John Calvin is an important figure for Protestant theology. If we can move past all the polemics that are associated (usually, wrongly) with his name, and actually engage with his theological offering; what the reader will find is a rich storehouse of theological reflection that is highly Christ concentrated. That’s what I intend to do with this post; I want the reader to be turned onto an aspect of Calvin’s soteriology that has enriched me greatly since the first time I was exposed to it. I am referring to what Calvin calls Double Grace (DUPLEX GRATIA). It is this soteriological frame, that for Calvin, is deeply grounded in a Christological focus; to the point that when reading his development of it, at points, you might mistake him for Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance. In this teaching Calvin thinks both justification and sanctification from nowhere else but the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, in order for salvation to inhere for the person, he/she must be in participation with Christ’s humanity by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In order for eternal life to obtain for the individual, that person must be in union with Christ (unio cum Christo); since Christ alone has won the salvation of God in the work He accomplished through incarnation and atonement. This conceptuality, by the way, is a locus classicus for what we are attempting to offer with our notion of Evangelical Calvinism.

Here Calvin in his 1541 French edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion explains what he means when referring to ‘double grace.’

It seems to me that I have previously explained carefully enough how it is that there remains to people only one refuge for salvation, which is faith, because by the law they are all cursed. I believe that I have also sufficiently discussed what faith is and what graces of God it communicates to people and what fruit it produces in them. Now the summary was that by faith we receive and possess Jesus Christ as He is presented to us by God’s goodness, and that in participating in Him we have a double grace. The first grace is that when we are reconciled to God by His innocence, instead of having a Judge in heaven to condemn us we have a very merciful Father there. The second grace is that we are sanctified by His Spirit to meditate on and practice holiness and innocence of life. Now as for regeneration, which is the second grace, I have said what seemed to me necessary. Justification was more lightly touched upon, because we had to understand what the good works of the saints are, which is a part of the question we must treat next.[1]

Of significance, per my impression, is the way Calvin thinks of these ‘two graces’ as embodied in Jesus Christ first. So, if we were to think this in terms of an ordo salutis (‘order of salvation’), we might think of it in this way: 1) Justification and Sanctification first obtain in Christ’s life for us, and 2) Justification and Sanctification second obtain for all those, who by faith, are in participation with Christ and His humanity for us. To frame salvation from this accent gives it a decidedly filial feeling, such that other sorts of theories of salvation, the ones that have juridical or forensic frames, are put into relief; or out to pasture where they should be. Not wanting to overread Calvin here, I wouldn’t want to make it sound like Calvin was a crypto-Barthian, but I do think the personalist and even existential conceptions present in Barth’s soteriology can be found in Calvin—to a degree. In order to illustrate this ‘feeling,’ in regard to the filial sort of salvation Calvin is offering, let me share from him further. Here you will notice the sharp emphasis Calvin lays on being in Christ; I take this to be a further development of his duplex gratia as that is given form in Christological repose.

Now in speaking of the righteousness of faith scripture leads us to quite another place; that is, it teaches us to turn our attention away from our works to regard only God’s mercy and the perfect holiness of Christ. For it shows us this order of justification: that from the beginning God receives the sinner by His pure and free goodness, not considering anything in him by which He is moved to mercy except the sinner’s misery, since He sees him completely stripped and empty of good works; and that is why He finds in Himself the reason for doing him good. Then He touches the sinner with a feeling of His goodness so that, distrusting everything he has, he may put the whole sum of his salvation in the mercy which God gives him. That is the feeling of faith, by which a person enters into possession of his salvation: when he recognizes by the teaching of the gospel that he is reconciled to God because, having obtained the remission of his sins, he is justified by means of Christ’s righteousness. Although he is regenerated by God’s Spirit, he does not rest on the good works which he does, but is reassured that his perpetual righteousness consists in Christ’s righteousness alone. When all these things have been examined in detail, what we believe about this matter will be easily explained. They are better digested if we put them in a different order than we have proposed them; but one can scarcely fail to grasp these matters provided that they are recounted in order in such a way that everything is well understood.[2]

What we have in Calvin is a robust, and I’d argue, Pauline development of what an ‘in Christ’ theory of salvation entails. The focus, for Calvin, unlike so much later ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Puritan’ theology, is not primarily on the recipient of salvation, but on the ‘cosmic’ Christ. Let me qualify this: when reading Calvin we can certainly find conceptual matter that sounds like what developed later in ‘Calvinism’ and the sort of ‘practical syllogism’ soteriology that the Puritans (like William Perkins) developed. But, I’d contend, and have here, that Calvin tends to contradict his Christ conditioned superstructural foundation when he presents us with a hidden decree of reprobation and ‘temporary faith.’

In the main Calvin is a richly and profoundly Christ funded theologian who seeks to find Christ in just about every nook and cranny conceivable; particularly when that comes to a doctrine of salvation. He isn’t a Barth or Torrance, come on, he lived in the 16th century; but in an antecedent form, under the theological conceptual pressures he inhabited, he (along with Luther) is as close as we might get to what latterly developed under the Barthian regimen of theological endeavor. I commend Calvin’s double grace soteriology to you; one that is decidedly grounded in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 318 [emboldening mine].

[2] Ibid., 320-21 [emboldening mine].

*Repost.

John Calvin’s Gospel of Wonderful Exchange Inspired by Irenaeus

A beautiful passage from Calvin’s French Institutes. It is clearly inspired by Irenaeus, and wonderful exchange theology.

For the words of the Lord are: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (Lk. 22 [20]; 1 Cor. 11 [25]), that is, a mark and witness of a promise. Wherever there is a promise, faith has a basis on which to rest and by which to give itself happiness and comfort. Our souls can receive from this sacrament a great sweetness and fruit of consolation in recognizing that Jesus Christ is so incorporated into us and we into Him that we can cal all that is His “ours,” and all that is our we can call “His.” Therefore we dare to promise ourselves with assurance that eternal life is ours, and that we cannot fail to reach the kingdom of heaven any more than Jesus Christ Himself can. And on the other hand, we cannot be damned by our sins any more than He can, because they are no longer ours but His. Not that any fault is imputed to Him, but because He has constituted Himself as debtor for us and has acted as the good debt-payer. This is the exchange which He has made with us by His infinite goodness: that in receiving our poverty He has transferred to us His riches; in bearing our weakness He has confirmed us in His power; in taking our mortality, He has made His immortality ours; in coming down to the earth He has opened a way to heaven; in making Himself Son of man, He has made us children of God.[1]

See Irenaeus, “Preface,” in Against Heresies, book 5, where he writes: “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” And the Apostle Paul who inspired both Irenaeus and Calvin famously writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (II Cor 8.9). In my view there is not richer reality than what Calvin, Irenaeus, and the Apostle Paul point us to in the reality of what God in Christ has accomplished for us; that is, that God became human, that we, by grace, not nature, might become God as sons and daughters of His who are partakers of His triune life as we are participants in the mediating life of Jesus Christ.

By the way, the passage from Calvin is taken from his section on the Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion has got to be the most profound act Christians can participate in as participants of the body of Christ. It bears witness to the reality that Calvin speaks to: of God become man, that we might become who He is by way of the adoption of holy Grace. This is the sort of theology I revel and get lost in all my days. When I stray from this, I stray from the reason for thinking theologically at all. Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 546-47.

A Low Protestant Churchman’s Reception of the Sacraments of the Church: Given Way by Calvin

I come from a low evangelical church context. This means that words like ‘sacrament’ are not used much, if ever. Nevertheless, many in the baptistic context do refer to the word: sacrament. For the longest time I had a real problem grasping what a sacrament is; even up until recently. People who use this language just typically use it, as if it’s an understood, in regard to what it entails. But in reality, I am not totally convinced that even people who use this language, and who are situated in ecclesial contexts that have high sacramentology, actually understand what it entails. At base, a sacrament of the Church is a physical sign that points the believer to Christ and the triune reality. But often, and even traditionally, it has come to be more than that. In contexts like Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, sacraments, like the eucharist, baptism, and other like components confer salvific grace upon those who partake of these sacraments. In fact, in these ecclesial contexts the sacraments are the only way for salvific grace to be dispensed for the seekers of God and His eternal life.

As a Protestant I am going to clearly have problems with the sectarian way that Catholics and the Orthodox view the sacraments of the Church. But I am wondering if there is a way that as a radical Protestant, I can constructively receive a sacramentology that has been properly denuded and reified by a concretization in Christ alone? In my view, John Calvin offers a way forward for a healthy Protestant understanding of the sacraments (I am referring to the eucharist and baptism, in the main, and I’ll add in the Word of God aka as Holy Scripture). Let us read along with Calvin as he critiques the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, and offers his alternative Christ concentrated perspective instead (a long quote):

Now in the sacraments this ought to be the chief consideration, that they are to serve our faith toward God. The second consideration is that they are to testify our confession before people. In accordance with this last reason, the analogies noted above are good and indeed suitable.

On the other hand, we must be warned that as these of whom we have been speaking destroy the efficaciousness of the sacraments and abolish their use, there are also on the other hand those who ascribe to the sacraments some secret powers which one never reads were given to them by God. By this error the simple and the ignorant are deceived and tricked when they are taught to seek God’s gifts and graces where they can never find them, and bit by bit are turned and drawn away from Him to follow purely vain things.

For the schools of the sophists have determined with one accord that the sacraments of the new law, that is, those which the Christian church uses now, justify and confer grace, if we do not put any obstacles of mortal sin in the way. We cannot adequately declare how dangerous this opinion is; and it is even more so because for so many long years it has been accepted, to the great detriment of the church, and it still continues in a quite large part of the world. Certainly it is obviously diabolic. For since it promises righteousness without faith it casts consciences into confusion and damnation. Moreover, setting the sacrament as the cause of righteousness, it ties and entangles the human mind in the superstition that righteousness rests on a corporeal thing rather than on God, since the human understanding is naturally very much more inclined toward the earth than it ought to be. It would be desirable if we did not have such great experience of these two vices — much less do we need great proof of them!

What is a sacrament taken without faith, except the destruction of the church? Nothing should be expected except in virtue of the promise which announces God’s wrath to the unbelievers no less than it presents His grace to the faithful, therefore the one who thinks he can receive from the sacraments a different good than that which he receives by faith as it is presented to him in the word, greatly deceives himself. From this also the rest can be inferred: confidence of salvation does not depend on participation in the sacraments, as if righteousness were established there. We known righteousness is located in Jesus Christ alone, and communicated to us not less by the preaching of the gospel than by the testimony of the sacraments, and it can exist entirely without that sacramental testimony. In this way what St. Augustine says is trustworthy: “The visible sign often appears without the invisible sanctification, and the sanctification without the visible sign.”

Therefore let us be certain that the sacraments have no other office than God’s word, which is to offer and present Jesus Christ to us, and in Him the treasures of His heavenly grace. They do not serve or profit at all except to those who take and receive them by faith. Besides, we must be on guard not to fall into another error close to this one from reading that the early church fathers, in order to increase the value of the sacraments, have spoken of them with such honor that we may think that some secret power is annexed and affixed to them — to the point that imagining that the graces of the Holy Spirit are distributed and administered in them as the wine is given in a cup or glass. Instead the whole office of the sacraments is only to testify to us and confirm for us God’s good will and favor to us, and they profit nothing beyond that it the Holy Spirit does not come — the Spirit who opens our minds and hearts and makes us able to receive the testimony. In this also God’s different and distinct graces clearly appear.[1]

We could tail off into a discussion of substance metaphysics, and how Calvin is ostensibly critiquing that when he refers to ‘wine of the glass or cup,’ but we won’t. For our purposes it is good to simply focus on how Calvin thinks of the sacraments as helpful witnesses to the risen Christ who stands beyond and behind them. To think of sacraments as salvific gateways, according to Calvin, is to distort them by artificially elevating them to levels that Christ alone, should, and does indeed have.

If we think of the sacraments from a Christ concentrated frame, as Calvin does, then we can have an expansive understanding of sacramentology in the main. If we think of creation as finding its res or reality, indeed, its telos or purpose in and from Christ alone, we can have a sacramental view of all of reality. Indeed, we ought to see an intensification of the sacraments that Christ ordained for His Church, but this shouldn’t diminish the fact that even the elementary parts of the sacraments, juice and water, are indeed part of the created order. And this is the point, these ‘signs’ are creaturely redeemed elements that bear witness to the greater reality that stands behind them: the blood and water of Jesus’s broken, baptized, and raised body. These signs bear witness to the fact of new creation, of the recreation that apocalyptically obtained in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. As we look at, as we taste, as we feel, as we smell, as we partake of these elementary pieces, we are pushed to do these things ‘in remembrance of Him, until He comes.’

This is the way I can operate with a sacramentology: only if the sacraments are properly and orderly situated in the reality they have been given by the risen Christ. It is when they are elevated to an altitude they shouldn’t have, because of an ecclesiology that hasn’t been prescribed (by Christ), that the language of ‘sacrament’ becomes something of an anathema for the low churchman’s Protestant ears. But this need not be the case.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 502-04 [emphasis mine].

The Weight of God’s Glory in the Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ: In the Theologies of John Calvin and Thomas Torrance

To be without Christ is to be without the possibility for salvation; for reconciliation with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ is the ‘point of contact’ between God and humanity; He is the mediator; the high priest that the Aaronic and Levitic priesthoods could only foreshadow; He is the Melchizedekian priest of the tribe of Judah with no genealogy, other than being the Word of the Father. It is this canonical reality that paves the way to the census road to Bethlehem, and finally to the via Delarosa. Jesus Christ, He is the scapegoat, and the Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. ‘In Christ’ the crescendo of all the ages is given the resounding boom of the Father’s thunderous voice that simply states: ‘this is my beloved Son, hear Him.’ He alone bears the weight of all the governments of the world; who alone is wonderful; who by Him all things hold together in the seen and unseen reality of the Triune God’s cosmos which serves as the theater of His beatific glory.

John Calvin understood how central Jesus is to the whole plenitude of God’s economy. Calvin maintained that Christ embodies both God’s justification and sanctification for us in Himself. He further understood that without union with Christ by faith alone we could never hope to be freed from the squalor of our sin-soaked existences; that without Christ there is no elevation to the holiness God requires in order for us to be participants in the fellowship of His perichoretic life of filial bliss. And so, Calvin wrote the following:

From what has been discussed previously, we clearly see how people are devoid and stripped of all good, and how they lack all that pertains to their salvation. That is why, if a person wants something to help him in his need, he must go outside himself and seek his help elsewhere. Morevoer, we explained that our Lord presents Himself freely to us in His Son Jesus Christ, offering us in Him all happiness in place of our misery, all abundance in place of our poverty, and opening to us in Him all His heavenly treasures and riches so that all our faith may look to His very dear Son, all our expectation may be in Him and all our hope may rest on Him. This is a secret, a hidden philosophy which cannot be understood by syllogisms; but those people understand it whose eyes our Lord has opened in order that in His light they may see clearly. We are taught by faith to know that all the good we need and which we lack in ourselves is in God and in His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father has established all the fullness of His blessings and abundance so that we may draw everything from there as from a very full fountain. Now it remains for us to seek in Him and, by prayers, ask from Him what we have learned is there. For otherwise to know God as the Master, Author, and Giver of all good who invites us to ask them from Him, and four us not to address Him, not to ask anything from Him, would not benefit us at all. It would be as if someone disdained and left buried and hidden under the earth a treasure about which he had been told. So we must now treat more fully this point about which we have previously spoken only incidentally and in passing.[1]

Embedded in Calvin’s thinking is what we (as Evangelical Calvinists), along with Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, have called a ‘doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ.’ It is the idea that all God’s Grace for us is actualized and embodied in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Calvin, at an early stage (relative to Barth’s and Torrance’s development of it latterly) presses what he calls unio cum Christo (or union with Christ); and what he more pointedly identifies as the duplex gratia (or double grace) of salvation that, again, is found in the extra (outside) life of God for us in Jesus Christ. The key aspect, of course, is to be found in union with Christ. If He remains outside of us, and we Him, then the salvation He is does us no good, it only remains an abstraction that has objectivity to it, but no subjectivity as we might remain in a state of carnality and in the deadness of our sins; apart from what Christ has won.

In order to understand and develop this doctrine further, a doctrine I think we see in Calvin’s own thinking, let’s turn to Thomas Torrance and allow him to explicate just how soteriologically rich this christological reality is; particularly as it finds its repose in a theology proper of Triune proportion:

We have to do here with a two-fold movement of mediation, from above to below and from below to above, in God’s gracious condescension to be one with us, and his saving assumption of us to be one with himself, for as God and Man, the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ ministers to us both the things of God to man, and the things of man to God. This has to be understood as the self-giving movement of God in Christ to us in our sinful and alienated existence where we live at enmity to God, and therefore as a movement in which the revealing of God to us takes place only through a reconciling of us to God. The incarnation of the eternal Word and Son of God is to be understood, therefore, in an essentially soteriological way. Divine revelation  and atoning reconciliation take place inseparably together in the life and work of the incarnate Son of God in whose one Person the hypostatic union between his divine and human natures is actualised through an atoning union between God and man that reaches from his birth of the Virgin Mary throughout his vicarious human life and ministry to his death and resurrection. It was of this intervening activity of Christ in our place that St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor that you through his poverty might be rich.

We may express this two-fold movement of revelation and reconciliation in another way by saying two things.

a) Since the Father-Son relation subsists eternally within the Communion of the Holy Trinity we must think of the incarnation of the Son as falling within the eternal Life and Being of God, although, of course, the incarnation was not a timeless event like the generation of the Son from the Being of the Father, but must be regarded as new even for God, for the Son of God was not eternally Man any more than the Father was eternally Creator.

b) Correspondingly, since in Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God became man without ceasing to be God, the atoning reconciliation of man to God must be regarded as falling within the incarnate life of the Mediator in whose one Person the hypostatic union and the atoning union interpenetrate one another.[2]

There is too much depth to unpack all of the implications offered by TF Torrance in the space we have, but suffice it to say: that within this frame of understanding, salvation is first and foremost understood not from forensic categories, but from relational ones. For Calvin, for TFT, for Barth, the ground of salvation has always been one that has been generated from within the processions of God’s life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; a genuinely personalist rubric for thinking salvation. These are heavy things; glorious realities; and doxological posits that we must continue to ponder with God’s help.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 458.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016), 144.

The ‘Double Salvation’ of the French Calvin: Participation with Christ as the Locus Classicus of Calvinian Soteriology

John Calvin is an important figure for Protestant theology. If we can move past all the polemics that are associated (usually, wrongly) with his name, and actually engage with his theological offering; what the reader will find is a rich storehouse of theological reflection that is highly Christ concentrated. That’s what I intend to do with this post; I want the reader to be turned onto an aspect of Calvin’s soteriology that has enriched me greatly since the first time I was exposed to it. I am referring to what Calvin calls Double Grace (DUPLEX GRATIA). It is this soteriological frame, that for Calvin, is deeply grounded in a Christological focus; to the point that when reading his development of it, at points, you might mistake him for Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance. In this teaching Calvin thinks both justification and sanctification from nowhere else but the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, in order for salvation to inhere for the person, he/she must be in participation with Christ’s humanity by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In order for eternal life to obtain for the individual, that person must be in union with Christ (unio cum Christo); since Christ alone has won the salvation of God in the work He accomplished through incarnation and atonement. This conceptuality, by the way, is a locus classicus for what we are attempting to offer with our notion of Evangelical Calvinism.

Here Calvin in his 1541 French edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion explains what he means when referring to ‘double grace.’

It seems to me that I have previously explained carefully enough how it is that there remains to people only one refuge for salvation, which is faith, because by the law they are all cursed. I believe that I have also sufficiently discussed what faith is and what graces of God it communicates to people and what fruit it produces in them. Now the summary was that by faith we receive and possess Jesus Christ as He is presented to us by God’s goodness, and that in participating in Him we have a double grace. The first grace is that when we are reconciled to God by His innocence, instead of having a Judge in heaven to condemn us we have a very merciful Father there. The second grace is that we are sanctified by His Spirit to meditate on and practice holiness and innocence of life. Now as for regeneration, which is the second grace, I have said what seemed to me necessary. Justification was more lightly touched upon, because we had to understand what the good works of the saints are, which is a part of the question we must treat next.[1]

Of significance, per my impression, is the way Calvin thinks of these ‘two graces’ as embodied in Jesus Christ first. So, if we were to think this in terms of an ordo salutis (‘order of salvation’), we might think of it in this way: 1) Justification and Sanctification first obtain in Christ’s life for us, and 2) Justification and Sanctification second obtain for all those, who by faith, are in participation with Christ and His humanity for us. To frame salvation from this accent gives it a decidedly filial feeling, such that other sorts of theories of salvation, the ones that have juridical or forensic frames, are put into relief; or out to pasture where they should be. Not wanting to overread Calvin here, I wouldn’t want to make it sound like Calvin was a crypto-Barthian, but I do think the personalist and even existential conceptions present in Barth’s soteriology can be found in Calvin—to a degree. In order to illustrate this ‘feeling,’ in regard to the filial sort of salvation Calvin is offering, let me share from him further. Here you will notice the sharp emphasis Calvin lays on being in Christ; I take this to be a further development of his duplex gratia as that is given form in Christological repose.

Now in speaking of the righteousness of faith scripture leads us to quite another place; that is, it teaches us to turn our attention away from our works to regard only God’s mercy and the perfect holiness of Christ. For it shows us this order of justification: that from the beginning God receives the sinner by His pure and free goodness, not considering anything in him by which He is moved to mercy except the sinner’s misery, since He sees him completely stripped and empty of good works; and that is why He finds in Himself the reason for doing him good. Then He touches the sinner with a feeling of His goodness so that, distrusting everything he has, he may put the whole sum of his salvation in the mercy which God gives him. That is the feeling of faith, by which a person enters into possession of his salvation: when he recognizes by the teaching of the gospel that he is reconciled to God because, having obtained the remission of his sins, he is justified by means of Christ’s righteousness. Although he is regenerated by God’s Spirit, he does not rest on the good works which he does, but is reassured that his perpetual righteousness consists in Christ’s righteousness alone. When all these things have been examined in detail, what we believe about this matter will be easily explained. They are better digested if we put them in a different order than we have proposed them; but one can scarcely fail to grasp these matters provided that they are recounted in order in such a way that everything is well understood.[2]

What we have in Calvin is a robust, and I’d argue, Pauline development of what an ‘in Christ’ theory of salvation entails. The focus, for Calvin, unlike so much later ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Puritan’ theology, is not primarily on the recipient of salvation, but on the ‘cosmic’ Christ. Let me qualify this: when reading Calvin we can certainly find conceptual matter that sounds like what developed later in ‘Calvinism’ and the sort of ‘practical syllogism’ soteriology that the Puritans (like William Perkins) developed. But, I’d contend, and have here, that Calvin tends to contradict his Christ conditioned superstructural foundation when he presents us with a hidden decree of reprobation and ‘temporary faith.’

In the main Calvin is a richly and profoundly Christ funded theologian who seeks to find Christ in just about every nook and cranny conceivable; particularly when that comes to a doctrine of salvation. He isn’t a Barth or Torrance, come on, he lived in the 16th century; but in an antecedent form, under the theological conceptual pressures he inhabited, he (along with Luther) is as close as we might get to what latterly developed under the Barthian regimen of theological endeavor. I commend Calvin’s double grace soteriology to you; one that is decidedly grounded in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 318 [emboldening mine].

[2] Ibid., 320-21 [emboldening mine].

Against Clericalism In High Churches and Low-Free Churches Alike: With Reference to Calvin’s Critique and A Local Church as Case Study

Clericalism, it’s a problem. We might think this problem is reserved for high church governments like we find, in particular, in Roman Catholicism; its excesses were most pronounced during the mediaeval ecclesiopolitical period. But this problem isn’t limited to high churches; it is a severe problem in many low-church contexts as well. When I refer to clericalism I am referring to an inordinate power assumed by church bishops, pastors and others in roles of leadership. An inordinate power because it is a power, I will contend, that clerics have not been imbued with; they only presume it—this is why some church governments (like Episcopal) might seem more prone towards this abuse, given the well articulated and ordered hierarchy such structures have. But, again, the phenomenon of ‘clericalism’ is not limited to these highly structured and ordered churches. For some reason, I’d suggest ‘carnality,’ even low-Free-churches, such as Baptists, non-Denominational, and other such churches also have the problem of clericalism attending them. For the rest of this post we will address this problem: we will identify a particular church I currently am aware of (through very personal connections) that is engaging in a rank clericalism; we will appeal to John Calvin’s argument against clericalism, and then draw him into discussion with some exegesis of Matthew 16 and 18 respectively.

The church my wife attended most of her growing up years, and my in-laws church (for 30+ years) up until a few months ago has had a dramatic split. They brought a younger pastor in from Dallas Theological Seminary a few years ago, who had an agenda all his own. Without getting into all the details (that I’m aware of), he attempted to spend money and “do ministry” that was way out of step with the core body of the church; and this church was pretty large. It took people awhile to get wise to what he was actually doing, but many finally did; and a rolling split started to happen. Within the last few months things have come to a head, and the core people of this church voted the whole elder board out; which was also a repudiation of the pastor himself. The elder board (the one voted out, save one) decided they needed to have another vote for an “interim” board until a permanent one could be voted on in a few months time. But prior to this vote these elders, under the direction of the pastor, struck folks like my in-laws from the membership roster so they couldn’t vote. Low and behold the elder board that was just voted out was voted back in as the “interim” (I’m using the scare quotes because it’s obvious that they have no designs of giving up their status and power in the church). Then this elder board, along with the pastor, sent out a mass email to the people of the church telling them that a divisive group of people had caused all the problems, and that they all needed to repent and submit to the eldership and pastor as their spiritual authorities. The destruction and bleeding continues as I write this. This is “clericalism” in a low-church context. Viz. The idea that these men are imbued with a spiritual authority simply because of the office they inhabit. But this is demonic, and wrong. By the way, the church I am referring to is a Conservative Baptist Church in Olympia, Washington.

John Calvin was quite aware of clericalism in his 16th century Western European context; of course his experience of that was indeed, with the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Calvin had thoughts on this issue. We will read along with Calvin as he addresses the problem of clericalism, and then note how that is related to the dominical teaching found in Matthew. Calvin writes at length:

Now we must see what is the power of the keys, in which the “confessionists” place all the strength of their kingdom. “Were the keys, then,” they say, “given without reason? Would He have said: ‘Everything that you have loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven’ without reason? Do we then make Christ’s word without effect?” I answer that there are two passages where the Lord testifies that what His people will have bound or loosed on earth will bound and loosed in heaven. Although these passages have different meanings, they are improperly confused by the ignorance of these wild boars (as they are accustomed to do in everything). One passage is in St. John, where when Christ is sending his apostles to preach He breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit; anyone’s sins which you pardon will be pardoned, and anyone’s sins which you retain will be retained” (Jn. 20[22-23]). The keys of the kingdom of heaven which had previously been promised to St. Peter are now given to him along with the other apostles, and nothing was promised to him which he did not receive here equally with all the others. It had been said to him: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16[19]). Here it is said to all the apostles that they should preach the gospel, which is to open the door of the heavenly kingdom to those who will seek access to the Father through Christ, and to close and bar it to those who turn away from this path. It had been said to him: “All that you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and all that you loose will be loosed.” Here it is said to all of them in common: “Those whose sins you pardon will be pardoned and those whose sins you retain will be retained.” To bind, then, is to retain the sins; to loose is to pardon them. Certainly, by the remission of sins consciences are delivered from true chains, and on the other hand by the retention of sins they are tightly bound. I will give an interpretation of this passage which is not too subtle or constrained or forced, but simple, true, and suitable.

This commandment to remit and retain sins, and the promise made to St. Peter to bind and loose, ought not to be related to any other end than the ministry of the word which, when our Lord ordained it for His apostles, He likewise committed to them the office of binding and loosing. For what is the summary of the gospel but that all of us, being slaves of sin and death, are delivered and brought over from sin and death by the redemption which is in Jesus Christ? On the contrary, that those who do not recognize and receive Christ as their Liberator and Redeemer are condemned to eternal prison? In giving His apostles this embassy to carry to all the nations on earth, and to show that it is His own, coming from and ordained by Him, our Lord honored it with this beautiful testimony — and it was a unique comfort to the apostles as well as the hearers to whom this embassy should be carried.

It was appropriate certainly that the apostles have a great and firm assurance about their preaching, when they had not only to undertake and carry it out with countless labors, cares, work, and dangers, but finally to seal it with their own blood. There was reason, then, for them to have the certainty that this preaching was not futile or empty but full of power. In such afflictions, difficulties, and dangers it was also necessary that they be assured that they were doing God’s work in order that, when all the world was opposing and going against them, they might know that God was for them; and that when they did not have Christ, the author of their teaching, with them on earth, they might understand that He was in heaven in order to confirm the truth of their preaching. On the other hand, it was necessary that it be very certainly testified to the hearers that this teaching was not the word of the apostles but of God Himself, and that it was not a voice born on earth but coming from heaven. For these things could not be in human power, that is, the remission of sins, the promise of eternal life, the message of salvation. So Christ testified that in the gospel preaching there was nothing of the apostles except the ministry; that it was He who spoke and promised everything by their mouths, as by instruments; that the remission of sins which they proclaimed was God’s true promise and the damnation which they made known was God’s certain judgment. Now this witness was given for all time and remains still firm for us, to make us certain and assured that the word of the gospel, by whomever it is preached, is the very speech of God, published from His throne, written in the book of life, passed, ratified and confirmed in heaven. So we understand that the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel, and indeed it is not so much power as ministry, as far as the human part goes. For Christ has not properly given this power to people but to His word of which He has made people ministers.[1]

All of that to say that the power that clerics often assume in the name of being a cleric is ill-founded. As Calvin rightly points out, as he refers us to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the cleric has no special power or authority over his brothers and sisters in Christ. He might have a different office than them, but the only ‘power’ he has is ministerial; and it is only even ministerial insofar that he proclaims and bears witness to the Gospel reality of God, which indeed is the Power. Do you see what this implies? It ought to teach us that no pastor, bishop, or elder has the place to usurp an authority over the body of Christ that goes beyond the Gospel itself. The pastor can hold people accountable to the reality and implications of the Gospel; he can expound upon and explain what those are. But the moment he appeals to some sort of inherent power or authority over others in the name of Christ, it is at that moment that the others have the authority to call him to account.

In the case of our example: When a majority of ‘the others’ have come to the conclusion that the elders and pastor have gone beyond the Gospel reality in their leadership roles, and they have called them to account; then it is the responsibility of the elders and pastor, in our case, to recognize that as the voice of God; it is their responsibility to respond responsibly, and step-down. Do you see the irony of this? The pastor, the elders, and other church ‘leaders’ do not have any greater authority or place before God than the ‘people’ of the church do; indeed, they are all just the people of the Church. The only one who has the sort of authority that the “clericalists” presume upon, as Calvin has so eloquently explicated for us, is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ‘Rock’ upon which the Church is built; not the clerics. Jesus Christ is the Power of God; not the clerics. So, in our scenario, these elders and pastor are out of line with the Gospel reality itself. They have been called to account by a majority of the church people, per the strictures of the Gospel itself, and as such ought to honor that witness to them.

As far as the exegesis of Matthew 16 and 18; Calvin has already started that argument, we will have to wait till later to fully get into that. But I will merely assert here that if we read Matthew 16 and 18 in the original language, and pay careful attention to the grammar therein, as Calvin has done, then we will arrive at the very same conclusion that Calvin has about ‘authority’ or power in the Church of Jesus Christ. We will come to realize that there is only a relative and more certain authority given to the Church catholic, only insofar that the Church more accurately bears witness to her reality in Jesus Christ. The moment the Church, or church leaders go beyond that witness, they no longer have any sort of authoritative reality to communicate; indeed, they have now placed themselves under the witness of others, as they collectively, or even individually in many cases, call the leadership back to their first love—if in fact they had this first love to begin with.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes Of The Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 293-95 [emboldening mine].

God’s Transcendence as the Point of Communion and Compassion: Calvin’s Theology Per Canlis

I don’t have a lot of time to write anything, but I wanted to share this really good word from Julie Canlis (by the way, she is a contributor to our first volume Evangelical Calvinism book). Here she is writing on Calvin’s thinking on Divine transcendence. You will notice that she is taking aim at the late medieval potentia theology, most notably associated with Nominalism. You will also notice that as she parses this in Calvin’s theology, what comes through is his emphasis upon a relational/communal understanding of God’s transcendence in a God-world relation.

Calvin fights for God’s transcendence not due to some abstract Nominalist principle but for the purpose of communion. God’s transcendence is not God’s imprisonment over (and thus out of) the world, but rather his freedom to be present to the world. While God’s transcendence is often hailed as the most distinctive mark of Reformed theology, this transcendence — if it is to follow Calvin — must not mean external relationship to the world but the absolute freedom with which God stands in relationship to his creatures. It establishes the radical noncontinuity of grace and the world. It certainly does not establish that grace and the world have nothing to do with each other! Instead, he offered the possibility of a new way to ground the Creator-creature relationship. Although it does not look promising to begin with the ontological divide between Creator and creature, it is only when this is established that participation is possible. This is Calvin’s genius and what is most often misunderstood about his theo-logical program. For we must remember that Calvin believed that it is not the divine perspective but the sinful human one to regard this ontological divide as a fearful separation. From the human perspective, “we are nothing,” but from the divine perspective, “how magnified”! (III.2.25).[1]

I thought this was a good word on Calvin’s understanding of transcendence; particularly as that is contrasted with potentia theology. Here, from the outset, in Calvin, according to Canlis, we have an example of how transcendence could (and should!) be thought from relational and ultimately Christological vistas.

I still don’t think people are really appreciating how significant insights like this are. The way we think God determines everything else following. It determines whether or not we have compassion on a wayward soul at point of death or not; it determines how we view people in general. If our view of God is wrong it could well lead us into the trap of our ‘love growing cold.’ In Calvin’s theology, per Canlis, we are not thinking God in terms of abstract and dualistic powers; instead we are thinking him in terms of divine presence and communal warmth—even and precisely at the point that we are thinking of His transcendence.

 

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 723, 728 loc.

The Patristic Rather than the Protestant, Calvin: Calvin’s Doctrine of Theosis and Ontological Salvation in Con-versation With Irenaeus

It might be said that John Calvin was something of a theologian born out of time. When you read him, particularly the French version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, what you will find is someone who sounds more like a Patristic theologian more than one who worked in and post late medieval theology. His Christocentric emphasis, I think, leads him to sound like maybe an Athanasius or Irenaeus; he offers insights about the eternal life of salvation that operate from the catholicity borne out by ecumenical councils like the niceno-constantinopolitano-chalcedony offered towards the orthodox grammar and thought of the Church since.

More materially, Calvin’s thinking sounds almost exactly like Irenaeus’s idea of theosis, and how it took God become human in Christ for humanity to become sons of God, by the adoption of grace, and thus participants in the eternal triune life of God. Note Irenaeus, and then Calvin following:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8:36 But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; Romans 6:23 and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men. He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?[1]

And Calvin:

What we have said will be clearer if we consider that the office of Mediator is not a common thing — that is; to restore us to God’s grace in such a way that we are made His children, we who were the children of people; to make us heirs of the heavenly kingdom, we who were heirs of hell. Who could have done that unless the Son of God had been made Son of man and had taken our condition so as to transfer to us what was His properly by nature, making it ours by grace? So we have confidence that we are God’s children, having the guarantee that the natural Son of God took a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bone from our bone, to be united with us. What was properly ours, He accepted in his person in order that what was properly His might belong to us, and thus He had in common with us that He was Son of God and Son of man. For this reason we hope that the heavenly inheritance is ours, because the unique Son of God who completely deserves it, has adopted us as His brothers. Now if we are His brothers, we are His co-heirs.[2]

In context, both Irenaeus and Calvin are writing against people who are attempting to denigrate the full divinity of the Son. Both thinkers identify the necessity of full divinity in Christ in order for ultimate salvation and eternal life to obtain. Interestingly, particularly with reference to Calvin, what we see is an inkling toward what we freely call theosis or divinization in the Patristic writers like Irenaeus. What is significant to me, in this regard, is that Calvin has an ontological understanding of salvation operative in and underwriting his thinking on salvation; contra the steep forensic or declarative understanding of salvation we end up seeing the scholastic Reformed or Post Reformed orthodox theologians of the Protestant period in the 16th and 17th centuries develop. This continues to be an underappreciated reality in Calvin, particularly by those who would like to read him into the Post Reformed orthodox period.

Thomas Torrance picks up on this theosis motif in Calvin’s thinking and rightly brings Calvin into the ontological frame when developing his own constructive doctrine of salvation. Again, this is rebuffed by people like Richard Muller et al. who want to read Calvin away from divinization salvific grammar, and instead see him fitting into the juridical models developed in the Post Reformation period. I think Torrance is right to align Calvin more with the Patristic Fathers rather than with the Post Reformed orthodox Fathers. I commend the aforementioned from Calvin as evidence in that direction. I also present it to you as further evidence that Calvin was someone born out of time; that he often sounds more like the Patristics than the Protestants, so to speak.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book III, Chpt. 19 [Emphasis mine].

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 223-24 [Emphasis mine].